About The Challenge:

Stony Brook University
Alan Alda at 11 years old. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University  

As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stopped being curious, and he never forgot how disappointing that teacher’s answer was.

Last spring, 822 scientists answered Alan’s question, with 6000 11-year-olds from around the world judging their answers.

This year, students have submitted nearly 300 questions that have been reviewed and narrowed down to just five. We encourage 11-year-olds to now vote on the five final questions listed below. Voting ends on November 16 at 5:00 pm EST.

1.) Does the universe have a known end?
2.) How does the brain store all of that information?
3.) What is time?
4.) How do you hear your thoughts in your head?
5.) What is color?

Vote now on your favorite question by clicking the ‘next question’ link below:

Next Question?

When he was invited to contribute a guest editorial to the journal Science, he wrote about why we need scientists to communicate clearly and vividly with the public. And he issued the Flame Challenge:

I’d like to try a playful experiment. Would you be willing to have a go at writing your own explanation of what a flame is—one that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun? The Center for Communicating Science is looking for new ways to light up people’s minds with science, and you might point the way. We’ll try out the entries on real 11-year-olds and see which work best. . . .

So here I am—I’m 11 years old and looking up at you with the wide eyes of curiosity. What is a flame? What’s going on in there? What will you tell me?